Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Fred Weir

The sixth and latest Reconsidering Russia podcast features Fred Weir, the Moscow Correspondent at The Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Weir holds an honors B.A. in European history from the University of Toronto and a teaching degree from the Ontario College of Education.

In this podcast, Mr. Weir and I discuss Russian politics and society, US-Russian relations, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine, the American Rust Belt, and his experiences covering Russia as a journalist, living on an Israeli kibbutz, and working as a journeyman ironworker. Enjoy!


Do the Donbas Rebels Want to Establish an Overland Corridor to Crimea?

Map of the Donbas and Crimea (based on a 2015 UN Map of Ukraine)

Map of the Donbas and Crimea (based on a 2015 UN Map of Ukraine)

Numerous observers of the recent events in Ukraine and Mariupol have concluded that the Donbas rebels seek to establish an overland corridor (or “land bridge”) to Crimea on behalf of the Kremlin. The claim, often repeated by pundits in the West, was also echoed by at least one Russian political analyst (Sergey Markov).

However, is this really the case? Do the Donbas rebels really want to establish an overland corridor to Crimea?

The facts and realities of the situation indicate, simply, “no.”

First and foremost, the Donbas region as a whole (including both Kiev-held and rebel-held areas) has no geographic link whatsoever with the Crimean peninsula (see the above map).  In order to establish a land bridge to Crimea, the rebels would need to invade the neighboring oblasti of Zaporozhia and Kherson on the Black Sea, both of which are not considered part of the Donbas.

Such an action would create a serious escalation of the Ukrainian conflict, something that Moscow has continuously stressed it wants to avoid.  There is also the question regarding the rationale for the creation an overland corridor to Crimea when Russia has already invested a lot to build a bridge to the peninsula across the Kerch strait to the Krasnodar Krai.

Even more importantly, since August, the rebels, especially the leader of the Donetsk Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, have made it clear on numerous occasions that they do not have any territorial ambitions outside of the Donbas region.

In fact, in light of the most recent fighting between Kiev and the Donbas rebels, Zakharchenko vowed to push the front to the borders of the Donetsk oblast so that “no shells can fall on Donetsk.”  The recent Mariupol hostilities need to be comprehended in this context.

Mariupol is important to the rebels, not as a potential part of an overland corridor to Crimea, but as part of the Donbas region and part of the Donetsk oblast more specifically.  In fact, it is the second largest city in the Donetsk oblast after Donetsk.  It is also a major port, giving the rebels another “life line” to Russia.  These are the reasons for its importance.

Who are the Donbas Rebels?

Updated on 15 March 2015 with newly revealed information on Crimea.

Lenin in the Donbas (Andrew Butko)

Lenin in the Donbas (Andrew Butko)

As I have written previously, based on the available evidence, I have concluded that most of the Donbas rebels are indeed locals. At the same time, I also believe that they are being encouraged by Russian nationalists from Russia, such as Igor Strelkov.  These nationalists are acting in a private capacity to not only assist but also encourage the rebels.  It is important to note that they are not supported in their endeavors by official Moscow.

However, the hardline faction of the Russian political elite, led by Dmitry Rogozin, wants Putin to intervene in Eastern Ukraine to support the rebels.  They took a similar position on Crimea.  Following ouster of Yanukovych from power in Kiev, a debate ensued in Moscow on the fate of Crimea.  Concerns regarding NATO expansion in Ukraine, the influence of the far-right in the new Kiev government, and the potential effort by the new Kiev government to expel the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol prompted the debate over the peninsula’s status.  Such fears were not unfounded as many in the Kiev government supported Ukrainian NATO membership, while others sought to cancel Russia’s lease on the base – and still others on the far-right (particularly Oleh Tyahnybok and Svoboda) wanted to abolish Crimea’s autonomy entirely.

The hardliners demanded immediate annexation, arguing that you either “take Crimea today” or “fight there tomorrow.”  At the same time, the more liberal political wing in Moscow (represented by Dmitry Medvedev and others from Putin’s St. Petersburg Sobchak days) was opposed to annexing Crimea outright.  They favored a referendum on the issue, but preferred to delay a final decision on the matter and use Crimea as a “bargaining chip” to ensure the presence of the Sevastopol base and to ensure that Ukraine does not join NATO.  Additionally, they argued, if Russia were to “reunite” with Crimea right away, it would make relations with the West even worse.

Putin ordered an emergency opinion poll during this time that showed that the vast majority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia. Weighing all options, Putin ultimately decided to support the pro-Russian movement in Crimea through a special operation, using the troops from the Black Sea Fleet to gain control of the peninsula as a so-called “self-defense force,” starting on 27 February 2014.

Putin also took the position that he would favor the outcome of the referendum, whatever the final result.  As he said in a new documentary on Crimea that was aired on Russian television on 15 March 2015, his “final goal was to allow the people express their wishes on how they want to live. I decided for myself: what the people want will happen. If they want greater autonomy with some extra rights within Ukraine, so be it. If they decide otherwise, we cannot fail them.”  The referendum was then organized in which the majority of the voters cast their ballots in favor of reunification with Russia. The rest is history.

The hardliners seek to convince Putin to take a similar position in Eastern Ukraine. However, the potential of intervening there is far more dangerous. Primarily, the linguistic demarcation between Russian-speaking Southeastern Ukraine and Surzhyk-speaking Central Ukraine is very blurred. Thus a Russian intervention would only make the situation more dangerous. Given this and other factors, Putin has not did not yielded to the pressure of the hardliners to intervene, even after a referendum was organized in the Donbas. In this regard, the more liberal St. Petersburg faction in the Kremlin, led by Medvedev and others, has been successful in persuading Putin not to intervene.  The most that Putin conceded to the hardliners with regard to Eastern Ukraine was his invoking of historic “Novorossiya.” However, even here, Putin has recently moved away from making such statements and has made attempts to clarify his use of that term to stress that Moscow is not seeking territorial claims on Ukraine.

How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis

Below are ten basic provisions that I believe may ameliorate not only the Ukraine crisis but also the broader tension that currently exists between Russia and the West. Not all readers will agree entirely with these positions, but hopefully they will become a starting point from which to defuse the situation, proceed forward, and create mutually friendly, not hostile, relations among all parties:

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS).  The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand "one inch" beyond East Germany.  The promise was never fulfilled.  To defuse the ongoing Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS). The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch” beyond East Germany. The promise was never fulfilled. To defuse the Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

1. The West and Russia should drop any mutual sanctions or restrictions against one another.

2. In order to encourage mutual trust, Moscow and Washington should make an unambiguous, official agreement prohibiting further expansion and encroachment of NATO into the former Soviet republics. Such an agreement must be clearly articulated in a written document, unlike the informal promise not to expand NATO made by US officials to former Soviet President Gorbachev in the 1990s.

3. The United States must promise to cancel the planned missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

4. The United States should recognize Russia’s interests in the former Soviet states, including at least verbal support by Washington for the Moscow-based Eurasian Union, provided that it does not expand beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet states.

5. On Crimea, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize and accept Russia’s incorporation of the peninsula. This may be a difficult step to take, but the West and the Yatsenyuk government have to acknowledge that the area is demographically and historically Russian, and that it is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Moscow will not reverse this action and any attempts to force Russia to do so would be counterproductive. Therefore, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize the reality that Crimea is effectively part of Russia.

6. On Ukraine, both Moscow and Washington should express a desire to see Ukraine proper united and indivisible, and to adopt either an oblast-by-oblast federal system or a decentralized unitary system. Ukraine should declare military neutrality and should pursue integration into the Eurasian Customs Union based on Ukraine’s logical and historic economic ties with Russia; notwithstanding the fact that the EU economy currently cannot manage Ukraine. If Brussels were to bring in Ukraine, it would seriously threaten the stability and unity of the EU and would unravel the progress made over the decades of forging a united Europe. Both Russia and the EU should cooperate on helping Ukraine to strengthen its economy and state institutions by challenging the stranglehold of the Ukrainian oligarchs.

7. Given the fact that many Moldovan citizens are already EU citizens via Romanian passports, and that Moldova is becoming increasingly integrated with the EU, Moscow should recognize Moldova’s pro-European orientation.  In turn, Chișinău should relinquish its claims to Transnistria.  Depending on the situation in Ukraine and the will of the people of Transnistria, the latter could then reunite with the former as part of the multiethnic, Russophone Odessa Oblast. The new division would occur along the River Dniester, with all Moldovan-controlled areas on the right bank of the river being ceded to Transnistria, and all Transnistrian-controlled areas on the left bank being ceded to Moldova. The remaining Moldovan state would proceed with EU integration, but would declare military neutrality and disavow any intention of reunification with Romania.  Its relationship with the latter would then become akin to the relationship shared between Germany and Austria.  Such a resolution would alleviate ethnic concerns within Moldova, particularly with the Gagauz.

8. On Georgia, Moscow should promote (with the support of Washington) a federal solution for Georgia as well, making Abkhazia and South Ossetia federal states within a unified Georgian republic. The process for this should follow roughly along the lines of the proposed plan that I posted earlier. Like Ukraine, this new united Georgian federal state should declare military neutrality and, for economic, historical, and geographic reasons, should integrate into the Eurasian Customs Union.

9. On Armenia and Karabakh, the solution to this particular issue should be in the principle of self-determination for the Karabakh Armenians, though this is just an opinion. The aggressive and threatening rhetoric and actions from official Baku have only alienated the Karabakh people. Notably, Baku has also consistently denied basic human rights to its own ethnic Azerbaijani citizens. Thus, such a regime could not be trusted to rule over the people of this region. Aside from this, in order for there to be a realistic and lasting solution to this problem, Azerbaijan must open its borders with Armenia and civil society contacts must be enhanced. Armenians and Azerbaijanis can get along, but not when they do not see or communicate with one another. In their common humanity, they will find that peace and coexistence are possible, but the borders must be open first. Turkey too must open its border with Armenia.

10. Both sides should agree on a gradual convergence of the West and Russia (along with the former Soviet states) in economic, political, and military spheres, thus ensuring that all parties are on the same page with regard to the future of the post-Soviet space and post-Cold War world in general. There are so many more important priorities that need to be solved in the world (Iran, North Korea, Syria, etc.). Russia and the West need to cooperate on these issues and must not be in conflict. Further, such a solution would effectively help to realize the long-term goal of a united and indivisible Europe. It would also go a long way toward building trust with Moscow, thus creating the conditions for Russia to deepen its democratic development endogenously.

How the Russian Hand Was Forced in Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted Crimea as a subject of the Russian Federation. It was the West, as he specified it in his speech to the Duma, that compelled him to make this decision. Earlier, Putin indicated that he was not interested in bringing Crimea into the Russian fold. However, pro-NATO sentiments among the interim Kiev government in Ukraine proved too much for Moscow. The potential expansion of NATO into Crimea, and the threat to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, became a clear “red line” that Washington had crossed. In Putin’s own words:

… we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia. These are things that could have become reality were it not for the choice the Crimean people made, and I want to say thank you to them for this.

But let me say too that we are not opposed to cooperation with NATO, for this is certainly not the case. For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way round.

In Russia, the decision was greeted with euphoria; the vast majority of Russians (over 90%) agreed with the Crimean referendum. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed with it too, saying that the people of Crimea “corrected a Soviet mistake” and that the West should celebrate this as a victory of self-determination and should not place any sanctions on Russia. Indeed, for many Russians, Putin’s move in Crimea has cemented his place in history as a truly great Russian leader and patriot, alongside the likes of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

On a less celebratory note, the events in Crimea will also have the long-term effect of further discrediting liberal voices in Russian politics who promote more partnership and cooperation with the United States. Washington’s efforts toward NATO expansion and democracy promotion have only served to discredit the US in Russia. As Putin pointed out in his speech, Washington has too often violated international law and worked without any consideration for Russian interests in the world:

Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

This happened in Yugoslavia; we remember 1999 very well. It was hard to believe, even seeing it with my own eyes, that at the end of the 20th century, one of Europe’s capitals, Belgrade, was under missile attack for several weeks, and then came the real intervention. Was there a UN Security Council resolution on this matter, allowing for these actions? Nothing of the sort. And then, they hit Afghanistan, Iraq, and frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called no-fly zone over it they started bombing it too.

There was a whole series of controlled “colour” revolutions. Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically. Standards were imposed on these nations that did not in any way correspond to their way of life, traditions, or these peoples’ cultures. As a result, instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter.

The question now is: what next? What will happen in the post-Crimea crisis era?

In an analysis that I wrote last week, I highlighted five reasons why absorbing Crimea would be detrimental to Russia. Of those five, the first three are arguably not major points and are effectively moot. Ukraine will not seek nuclear weapons, the markets did not react badly to Putin’s move, and the impact of sanctions has been (and will continue to be) marginal. On the latter point, the West knows it can only do so much. If they would implement full-scale sanctions, it would hurt them (especially Europe) as much or more than Russia. Moscow has very good relations with Beijing and has already been looking eastward anyway (today it has indicated as much). If full economic sanctions were put in place, it will be the EU, not Russia, that will suffer. Heavy sanctions would potentially have the effect of compounding the already-unstable situation in the Eurozone. Further, if the EU remains committed to the Kiev government in Ukraine, they will be obliged to give money to them too.

That said, my last two points still remain concerns. I mentioned the domestic response in Ukraine. My impression has been that, out of a sense of national feeling, many Ukrainians throughout the country would feel hurt by Crimea’s accession to Russia. This is still arguably a concern for Moscow, which ultimately still seeks to bring Ukraine into its Eurasian Customs Union at the end of the day. In his speech to the Duma, Putin sought to mitigate the potential fallout from his move by emphasizing that it was forced by geopolitical circumstances and that it had nothing to do with the Ukrainian people:

I also want to address the people of Ukraine. I sincerely want you to understand us: we do not want to harm you in any way, or to hurt your national feelings. We have always respected the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state, incidentally, unlike those who sacrificed Ukraine’s unity for their political ambitions. They flaunt slogans about Ukraine’s greatness, but they are the ones who did everything to divide the nation. Today’s civil standoff is entirely on their conscience. I want you to hear me, my dear friends. Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that. As for Crimea, it was and remains a Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean-Tatar land.

I repeat, just as it has been for centuries, it will be a home to all the peoples living there. What it will never be and do is follow in Bandera’s footsteps!

Crimea is our common historical legacy and a very important factor in regional stability. And this strategic territory should be part of a strong and stable sovereignty, which today can only be Russian. Otherwise, dear friends (I am addressing both Ukraine and Russia), you and we – the Russians and the Ukrainians – could lose Crimea completely, and that could happen in the near historical perspective. Please think about it.

Another serious concern that I discussed was the possible impact that Crimea’s accession to Russia would have on further NATO expansion, and that it may give credibility to those Cold War lobbyists and Russia-bashers in the West who want to bring NATO to Russia’s doorstep. Fortunately for now, it seems as though the West has relented on bringing Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy “Yats” Yatsenyuk now seems to be emphasizing that Kiev does not seek NATO membership and that it supports a possible federalization of Ukraine (ideally on an oblast-by-oblast level), two things that Moscow wants to see.

Still, influential far-right forces in Kiev such as Svoboda and Right Sector may force Yatsenyuk to reconsider these positions. Right Sector especially seems intent on provoking an open conflict with Russia, something that the West, Ukraine, and Russia do not want or need. Already yesterday, Ukraine’s national security chief, Andrey Parubiy (the co-founder of Svoboda and the former leader of the paramilitary far-right Patriots of Ukraine) has issued a statement declaring Ukraine’s intention to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), to have Russians apply for entry visas, and to declare Crimea a “demilitarized zone.”

Yet, efforts toward NATO expansion seem to continue unabated in the Caucasus. Here Washington has shown a clear interest in granting Georgia an MAP (Membership Action Plan) by September this year. The Russian daily Kommersant said as much last week, though for those closely watching developments in Georgia, this was nothing new, especially after Irakli Garibashvili’s trip to Washington last month. Significantly, yesterday NATO announced that it will be sending a delegation to Tbilisi next week. Meanwhile, French President François Hollande, a friend of Washington, has also announced a future visit to Georgia in May.

Having Georgia as a NATO member would be a major strategic victory for Washington over Moscow and would pave the way for NATO military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Moscow will never accept this and, as I have previously written, Moscow will work to strike some sort of a deal with Tbilisi before autumn. Already this week Moscow made two strategic moves: they reopened the Georgian Military Road fully for the first time since 2006, and Grigory Karasin, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and representative for Russo-Georgian relations, held discussions on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian borders with Georgia with UN representative Antti Turunen, OSCE Special Representative for the South Caucasus Angelo Gnaedinger and Permanent Representative of the European Union, to the OSCE Thierry Bechet.

Karasin is due to meet with his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze next week, a very significant meeting that may pave the way for a direct meeting between Putin and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and/or Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. The Karasin-Abashidze meeting has already been delayed twice, and it remains to be seen how this situation will finally develop.

Addendum (21 March 2014): Dr. Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, has informed me that “calls to bring Ukraine into NATO have not diminished among NATO reps and advocates in Europe.” I agree and I must emphasize that I do not think Ukraine has left the NATO agenda. However, I do think that Washington has advised Yatsenyuk to “cool it” hence why he is now saying that he does not want to Ukraine to join NATO. Yet, this is only for the time being and I still suspect that the ultimate objective is to bring Ukraine into the alliance anyway (though Moscow will never allow this).

This is why I wrote “Fortunately for now, it seems as though the West has relented on bringing Ukraine into NATO.” Instead, for the present time, Georgia appears to be the focus for more immediate NATO expansion.

Again, though, I must emphasize that I certainly do not think that Ukraine has totally vanished from the view of NATO expansionists. In fact, I am still concerned that, in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis, NATO expansion is now being viewed as a “wise move” among many circles. NATO expansionists, Russia-bashers, and Cold War hawks will be seen as correct in their predictions that “the Russian bear was always a threat” and that “we need NATO to counter Russia.” Their foolishness, irresponsibility and arrogance is now being viewed as “wisdom” and “foresight.” It seems to somehow reaffirm and vindicate the notion that “poking and antagonizing the bear” was a “well-informed move” and that it enhances the security of the United States and the West. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Brief Note on Citizenship in Ukraine

Ukrainian Passport (RIA Novosti/Sergei Venyavsky)

Ukrainian Passport (RIA Novosti/Sergei Venyavsky)

In light of the recent Ukraine crisis, much has been made about the issue of Russian citizens in Ukraine, especially as Russia has stated that it may employ the “right to defend” its citizens.

This made me consider: are the people of Ukraine able to hold the citizenship of both Ukraine and Russia, including both passports?

The short answer is technically no.

According to the present Constitution of Ukraine (Title I, Article 4) and the Law on Citizenship of Ukraine, it is illegal to hold dual citizenship in Ukraine. However, there are still many in Ukraine who hold dual citizenship anyway. Understandably (and perhaps not surprisingly), a good number of Russians living in Crimea held dual-citizenship up until the recent referendum (it is unclear how a future status of Crimea outside of Ukraine will affect the citizenship status of these people).

However, there are also significant numbers of people in Ukraine proper who hold dual citizenship as well.  According to a 2008 New York Times report:

Gazeta.24 [a Ukrainian news service] reports that in one oblast [likely Chernivtsi], many Ukrainians have Romanian passports; in another Polish, and in many of the eastern oblasts, Russian passports.

According to the article, about 70% of the residents in Chernivtsi (North Bukovina) hold dual citizenship with Romania. It is also probable that many Hungarians living in the southern portion of Zakarpattia Oblast hold dual citizenship with Hungary. In fact, Budapest has recently opened up the door to granting citizenship to their co-ethnics abroad, including in Ukraine. The majority of applicants are ethnic Hungarians, though it is possible that some Carpatho-Ukrainians native to Zakarpattia have taken advantage of this as well.

More significantly, it is worth noting that the article states that dual citizenship with Russia also extends to the “many of the eastern oblasts.” This likely includes the southern oblasts too and probably even significant portions of some central oblasts (especially the Sumy, Chernihiv, and Kirovohrad Oblasts). Overall, it can be deduced that the vast majority of those in Ukraine with dual citizenship share it with Russia more so than any other country.

5 Reasons Why Absorbing Crimea Would Be Detrimental to Russia

Pro-Russian Demonstrator in Sevastopol (ITAR-TASS/Mikhail Pochuev)

Pro-Russian Demonstrator in Sevastopol (ITAR-TASS/Mikhail Pochuev)

As I expressed in an earlier post, I do not think that the Kremlin is interested in absorbing Crimea.  However, that being said, I would like to point out five reasons why absorbing Crimea would be detrimental to Moscow:

1. It would undermine the terms of the 1997 Russia-Ukraine Friendship Agreement.  In this treaty, Russia recognized the territorial integrity of Ukraine.  In return, it received substantial benefits, including Ukraine giving up its Soviet-era arsenal of nuclear weapons for destruction.  If Russia reneged on this treaty by absorbing Crimea, then it could leave the door open for Ukraine to seek nuclear arms.  Nobody wants nuclear proliferation and it certainly would not be in Russia’s interest.

2. Financially speaking, annexing Crimea comes with a huge price tag.  Putin has already seen the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis on Russia.  It brought thousands of middle class Russians out into in the streets of Moscow and seriously hurt Putin’s approval rating.  Annexing Crimea would bring about a substantial financial reaction that would do more harm to Russia than good.

3. Russia would be isolated from the West.  Annexing Crimea would seriously damage Western-Russian relations which are especially crucial to both sides.  One could argue emotionally that relations with the West are already tense, so why would Russia care?  Indeed, Russia would care because it has strong economic connections to the West, especially the EU.  Likewise, the West (and the EU in particular) has strong economic ties with Russia.  To severe these ties would create serious problems for both Russia and the West that neither side can really afford.

4. It would seriously damage Russia’s credibility in Ukraine.  Opinions about Russia vary in Ukraine.  In Western Ukraine, especially Galicia, there is a strongly anti-Russian sentiment.  However, the attitude becomes more positive in Central Ukraine and especially in the Russophone South and East Ukraine.  Arguably, it is also positive in the distinct westernmost oblast of Zakarpattia where pro-Russian sentiment can be found among many of the Carpatho-Ukrainians.  As I wrote earlier, Putin’s primary aim is not to annex Crimea or to annex Ukraine in part or in whole.  Rather, he wants to see Ukraine in its entirety join as an equal partner in his Eurasian economic Customs Union.  Such a move would be impossible without domestic support and if Crimea is absorbed by Russia it would alienate broad segments of the Ukrainian public, from Uzhgorod to Luhansk, who regard Crimea as “their turf” even if it is an ethnically Russian-dominated region.  Further, by annexing Crimea, Russia would also lose a significant point of geopolitical leverage over Kiev which, if not keeping the country within its orbit, would at least ensure that it does not join the NATO military alliance.

5. It would give license for further NATO expansion, right up to Russia’s frontiers.  By absorbing Crimea, Russia would be giving a clear justification for the expansion of the NATO military alliance deep into post-Soviet territory.  Cold War lobbyists and anti-Russian hawks in the West would feel vindicated and justified in their efforts, dating back to the 1990s, to bring NATO right on Moscow’s doorstep.  These NATO expansionists would play on popular Ukrainian disillusion with Russia in the aftermath of a potential Crimean absorption and would work to bring Kiev into the alliance.  Suddenly, Russia may find itself faced with NATO military bases in Sumy, a mere 98 miles away from Kursk and 404 miles from Moscow!  Further, NATO expansionists would also speed up a potential Georgian membership in NATO in the south (something that is already being discussed).  As it stands now, Moscow still has some cards to play with Tbilisi, as I have discussed in a previous analysis.  However, an absorption of Crimea would potentially threaten any advancements in Russo-Georgian relations and it could also plant Tbilisi firmly in the Western camp, making potential Georgian membership in NATO a real possibility.  This would mean that NATO bases could potentially be on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus range with missiles aimed at Chechnya, Daghestan, and Sochi.  This would also give the West a perpetual outlet to Eurasia as Georgia now serves as a corridor to Western access to resource-rich post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caspian basin.  If Russia annexed Crimea and the West reacted by planting Georgia firmly in its camp, then Moscow’s influence in Central Asia would also be undermined.

Given these five reasons alone, I must state again that I think Moscow is not interested in annexing Crimea and instead seeks to use it as a bargaining chip with the West in the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

Ukraine: What Will Happen Next?

Pro-Russia Demonstrators in Crimea (ITAR-TASS/EPA/Zurab Kurtsikidze)

Pro-Russia Demonstrators in Crimea (ITAR-TASS/EPA/Zurab Kurtsikidze)

There has been much speculation over where the Ukraine crisis will go next.  Here are my thoughts on this issue.

Moscow will likely not accept the unification of Crimea with Russia.  As Russia scholar and former diplomat Jack Matlock has stressed, this is not in Russia’s interests. Instead, the Kremlin will relent and allow Crimea to remain part of Ukraine. However, Putin will only agree to this on three very significant conditions:

  1. Crimea must have true, maximum autonomy and perhaps some sort of “special relationship” with Russia that ensures this.
  2. The Black Sea Fleet will remain in Sevastopol indefinitely.
  3. Ukraine as a whole, must never join NATO.

All are very real concerns for Russia.  Many in the present interim government in Kiev have advocated for Ukraine’s NATO membership and for canceling the Black Sea Fleet agreement with Moscow.  One of the government’s coalition members, the far-right Svoboda party, has even advocated abolishing Crimea’s autonomy altogether.  At the same time, Russia is not interested in annexing Crimea, but rather in having Ukraine (in its entirety) as an equal partner in its Eurasian Customs Union and not as a member of the EU and certainly not as a member of NATO.

Given this, the Kiev government, already faced with an impending financial collapse and a potential Russian gas shutdown, will have no choice but to agree. The Europeans, led by Germany and the UK (since France under Hollande is increasingly losing its international standing) will back the agreement. Washington will not have much of a say.

After this, Ukraine will implement harsh austerity measures to help save the national economy with the help of the West and the IMF. The effects of this austerity combined with other factors, such as the presence of the far-right in the government, will lead to rising public discontent and the downfall of the present government.

12 Points to Consider on the Ukraine Crisis

Ukrainian Navy servicemen onboard the ship "Slavutych" (from ITAR-TASS).

Ukrainian Navy servicemen onboard the ship “Slavutych” (from ITAR-TASS).

1. Contrary to widespread Western media reports, Russia has not actually invaded Ukraine. The use of the term “invasion” evokes images of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. This is not the case. Rather, the ethnic Russians in Crimea have revolted against the interim government in Kiev due to very real concerns (such as the abolition of the regional language law) and Moscow is supporting them politically and militarily. Moscow is likewise interested in protecting its Black Sea Fleet as well as access to the port. Several contingents of the Ukrainian Army and Navy have also defected to the side of the Crimean rebels. The head of Ukraine’s Navy was among those who defected. Given this, the “Russian invasion” narrative, while dramatic and eye-catching, is misleading. The actual situation is much more complex and not as black-and-white as the Cold War-style “invasion” narrative sounds.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (ITAR-TASS)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (ITAR-TASS)

2. Putin dislikes ex-President Yanukovych, primarily for the poor, indecisive, and incompetent leadership he has exhibited and because he played the geopolitical contest between Russia and the West to the brink. If the current government in Kiev falls, Putin will likely back somebody entirely new to take its helm, but not Yanukovych.

3. Putin is not just interested in Crimea or in Southeastern Ukraine. He also has no ambition to annex Ukraine. Rather, he would ideally like to see Ukraine as a whole join as an equal partner in the Moscow-backed economic Customs Union.

Yulia Tymoshenko

Yulia Tymoshenko

4. Yulia Tymoshenko is not the savior of Ukraine and neither are much of the rest of Ukraine’s oligarchs and political elite who have plundered the country and its people since independence.

5. If not close to bankruptcy, the Ukrainian economy is totally bankrupt. It presently needs around $50 billion. They will have difficulty even paying their civil servants in the next few weeks.

6. If Ukraine goes bankrupt, it will adversely affect the availability of food. The interim government in Kiev will lose its credibility if the people of Ukraine have no bread.

7. The EU has still not recovered from the Eurozone crisis. It can barely bail out Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Meanwhile, unemployment is rising in France where President Hollande’s popularity is at an all-time low. Given all this, the EU will be unable to provide the funds that Ukraine needs to avoid default.

8. The US economy is also in very bad condition and will probably get worse. It too cannot afford to bail out Ukraine.

9. The IMF can give limited financial support to Ukraine, but this requires adhering to IMF regulations and austerity that would put the situation in a tailspin. People in Central Ukraine who are mixed Russian-Ukrainian speakers and whose support for the protest has been mixed (in contrast to the West which was pro-Maidan and the East and South which were anti-Maidan) would turn decisively against their government.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

10. The West has limited options for retaliating against Russia over Ukraine. Sanctions are impossible. The US still needs Russia on important issues like Iran and Syria and the EU, and especially Germany, cannot afford to severe its ties with a major trade and energy partner. The best that the West can do, if they can obtain agreement among themselves, is to expel Russia from the G8, which would not phase Moscow. Putin is far more interested in Ukraine than in the G8 which has become increasingly irrelevant in recent years.  To note, Germany has voiced its opposition to expel Russia from the G8.

11. By encouraging and supporting the anti-government movement in Ukraine, the West has made democratic development in the former Soviet space more difficult. Authorities in Russia and other ex-Soviet states will begin to associate genuinely peaceful protests and free expression with the violent unrest and extremism of the Maidan. Jack Matlock, the former US ambassador to the USSR in 1987-91, echoed this sentiment on a recent blog post, quoting an American friend who is a resident of Moscow:

People won’t demonstrate, and not just because of fear of the police. It will simply seem unpatriotic and remind everyone of violence in Kiev, which no one wants. Even people who dislike Yanukovich do not like how he was kicked out of office. I think it’s a fair question to ask why elections couldn’t take place as agreed, and why he had to be forced out of office immediately.

Svoboda Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok

Svoboda Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok

12. The interim government in Kiev, whether one likes Yanukovych or not, came to power through illegal means and is an uneasy marriage of pro-EU liberals and far-right fascists. The far-right groups include Svoboda, Right Sector, Patriot of Ukraine, and the Ultras, all of whom make no secret of their antisemitism, Russophobia, and love of Ukrainian collaborators from World War II. This has been an anathema for most of the South, the East, and much of Central Ukraine who lost many family members in the Great Patriotic War. Overall, all of these issues – the inclusion of fascists in the government, the potential challenge for the availability of food, the impending economic collapse, the implementation of IMF-style austerity, and the inability to solve the Crimean situation – will seriously undermine the credibility of the Kiev government very quickly unless it gets massive financial support and backing from the EU and the US, which is unlikely. The loss of the present government’s credibility may, ironically, serve to also bring the country together.

What is Ukraine?

Updated and expanded as of 15 May 2014 to reflect recent developments.

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has prompted much commentary.  However, few analysts have really been able to truly answer the basic question: what is Ukraine and why is this country so significant to Russia?

The name “Ukraine” itself has often been translated as “borderland.” Its diverse people and historical monuments are a testament to its being contested by regional powers throughout the centuries, including today. It has been coveted historically for its vast, fertile, and resource-rich agricultural land and for its geostrategic military position. The country has been often referred to as the “Bread Basket of Europe,” the “Bread Basket of the Russian Empire,” or the “Bread Basket of the Soviet Union,” depending on which era of history one is observing.

Whet Field in Ukraine

Wheat Field in Ukraine

As a people, the Ukrainians are distinct. They speak an East Slavic language that is closely related to, but not the same as Russian. Historically, the Ukrainians shared many state formations with the Russians from the Kievan Rus’ to the Soviet Union, sometimes as equal partners, sometimes as subordinates. As such, they have often been associated with Russia. However, they are a distinct people altogether. They have their own national dance, the hopak, also known as the Cossack dance, with its famous prisyadka (“squat-and-kick”) move that Westerners often stereotypically associate with cultural images of “Russia.” They are also renowned for their unique musical instrument, the badura, a sort of fusion between the harp and the balalaika. In cuisine, they are famous for their love of salo and borscht, which is actually of Ukrainian, not Russian, origin. The poet and artist Taras Shevchenko and the Soviet-era filmmaker Aleksandr Dovzhenko are among the foremost Ukrainian cultural icons. Further, the Cossacks, a transnational East Slavic cultural group renowned for their love of freedom and horsemanship, played a major role in the formation of the Ukrainian national identity.

The Pavlo Virsky Ukrainian National Folk Dance Ensemble dancing the Hopak with the famous prisyadka at 4:46. 

Western commentators have often spoken of Ukraine as either a single monolith (“the Ukrainian people”) or as “two Ukraines,” one being “largely pro-Western” and even “majority Catholic,” and the other being “largely pro-Russian” and “majority Orthodox.” However, both are oversimplifications. The regional divisions within the country are actually much more complex than an outside observer may perceive them to be. For example, Catholics of all rites only comprise about 10% of Ukraine’s population while Orthodoxy remains dominant overall. Essentially, though, there are basically three major regions in Ukraine – Western Ukraine, Central Ukraine, and Southeastern Ukraine – and two distinct smaller regions – Zakarpattia and Crimea.

Regional Map of Ukraine

Regional Map of Ukraine

The region of Western Ukraine is comprised of three distinct regions: Galicia, Volhynia, and Chernivtsi. Of these, the historic areas of Galicia and Volhynia best correspond to the mainstream impressions of the pro-Western, Polish-leaning, Catholic Ukraine. Their distinct Western orientation and rejection of Russia goes back deep into the annals of history. Being the westernmost of the East Slavic Rus’ lands, the old medieval Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia maintained a distinct Western outlook. Catholic influence was accepted and the kingdom perceived itself to be within the same cultural sphere as its Catholic neighbors, Poland and Hungary. Intermarriage between the princely houses of this region and Catholic states was not uncommon. By contrast, other historical lands of the Rus’ were hostile toward Western influence. Their experience with the West was shaped by images of an aggressive invader, whether it was Poland, Sweden, or the Teutonic Knights.

Volhynia (the homeland of Ukraine’s first post-Soviet President Leonid Kravchuk) was annexed by the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in the Third Partition of Poland in 1795. The dominant Greek Catholicism was suppressed and Orthodoxy was reintroduced. The area was later annexed by interwar Poland and remained part of that state until the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 when it became part of Soviet Ukraine.

Skyline of Lviv, Galicia, Western Ukraine.  Note the Central European architectural style.

Skyline of Lviv, the unofficial capital of Galicia in Western Ukraine. Note the Central European architectural style.

Meanwhile, Galicia (centered on the city of Lviv) remained entirely outside of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and was instead part of Austria-Hungary and interwar Poland until, again, the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. As such, the region’s links with Catholic and Western Europe remained relatively strong.

The western orientation of both Galicia and Volhynia has persisted to the present day, with Catholicism still playing an important role in Galicia. After these regions were incorporated into the Soviet Union, the Soviet military faced strong partisan resistance from within this region that continued into the early 1950s. Anti-Russian sentiment and support for Ukrainian nationalism runs high here, especially in Galicia where the extremist far-right party “Svoboda” has managed to win as much as 40% of the local electorate. Ironically, though “Svoboda” has been one of the main leaders in the Euromaidan protests, it is extremely Euroskeptical and has been accused of Neo-Nazism, Russophobia, and antisemitism. Its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has glorified Ukrainian nationalist collaborators from World War II for fighting against “Russians, Jewry and other crap.” Stepan Bandera, largely considered a wartime collaborator throughout most of Ukraine, is seen in Western Ukraine as a national hero. Naturally, a local citizen in a city like Lviv would fully endorse the Euromaidan protests and perceive the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union to be a Russian imperial project or even a “neo-Soviet” project.

Outside of Galicia and Volhynia is Chernivtsi.  Centered around the city of the same name, this region is comprised of territory that was, until World War II, part of Austria-Hungary and later, the interwar Kingdom of Romania. Most, though not all of it, corresponds to the historic region of North Bukovina.  Despite its geographic place in Western Ukraine, the voting and linguistic patterns of this region more closely follow those seen in Central Ukraine than in Galicia and Volhynia.  Elections here are often close and the locals largely speak Surzhyk, a mixed Russian-Ukrainian language (see the Central Ukraine section below for more details).  It is also home to a significant (about 20%) Romanian minority from which the current Prime Minister Arseniy “Yats” Yatsenyuk is partially descended. With the abolition of the regional language law, there have been concerns here too since areas of Chernivtsi are majority-Romanian speaking. Ironically, Yatsenyuk, who supported abolishing the language law, also reportedly speaks some Romanian as well.

St. Nicholas Wooden Church in Zakarpattia

St. Nicholas Wooden Church in Zakarpattia

Further west, the secluded westernmost mountainous oblast of Zakarpattia represents an entirely distinct case all its own. Sharing four international boundaries with Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, this is the homeland of the Carpatho-Rusyns (also known as the Carpathian Ruthenians), a distinct East Slavic people (or a subgroup of Ukrainians, depending on one’s view) who follow the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church (distinct from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church). The local population of Zakarpattia, while tilting westward, would likely perceive imperialist ambitions on the part of not only Moscow, but Kiev too. In a 1991 referendum devised by former Ukrainian President Kravchuk, the people of this region voted overwhelmingly to be granted local autonomy. However, this was never implemented. In 2008, a group calling itself the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenians unsuccessfully attempted to proclaim a “Republic of Carpathian Ruthenia.”  Notably, Zakarpattia is one of two regions in all of Ukraine that has registered a positive natural population growth rate (download the official statistics here).

This largely rural area, located at the geographic center of Europe and famous for its wooden church architecture, was part of the Kingdom of Hungary within Austria-Hungary until 1918, when it became part of interwar Czechoslovakia. It was annexed by Soviet Ukraine after World War II. Despite this history, most Czechs and Slovaks share good relations with the Carpatho-Rusyns and neither nationality has any claim to Zakarpattia.

However, there is a sizable Hungarian minority in southern Zakarpattia and this has been claimed by Hungarian nationalists who still refuse to recognize the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Significantly, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has been very quiet on the ongoing Ukraine crisis and, if anything, he has been closer to Yanukovych. Orbán has been keen to forge a good relationship with Yanukovych because Yanukovych supports the linguistic rights of non-Ukrainians in Ukraine, which includes the Hungarians of Zakarpattia. When the law on regional languages was recently cancelled by the new, post-revolutionary government in Kiev, the Hungarians of Zakarpattia reacted with apprehension and are now looking to Budapest for help.

Renowned Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol.  A native of Central Ukraine, Gogol was the author of Dead Souls among other works.

Renowned Russian writer and ethnic Ukrainian, Nikolai Gogol. A native of Central Ukraine, Gogol was the author of Dead Souls, The Inspector General, and other masterworks of Russian literature.

Then there is Central Ukraine (also known as Dnieper Ukraine), the heartland of the country that stretches from Khmelnytskyi to Sumy. Centered on the capital Kiev, this largely agricultural region was historically part of the Russia Empire and the Soviet Union throughout much of its recent history. This wide, rich, fertile, and beautiful region has also seen much tragedy. North of Kiev, near the border with Belarus occurred the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Additionally, along with much of Southeastern Ukraine, Central Ukraine experienced the Stalin-era Holodomor famine of the 1930s as well as the horrors of World War II.

Largely Orthodox in faith, Central Ukraine’s language is primarily Russian in the major cities (such as Kiev) and Surzhyk, a Russian-Ukrainian linguistic mix, in the countryside. Emerging from “pure Ukrainian” in the west, Surzhyk is the dominant language for much of Central Ukraine until one reaches the Kharkiv Oblast and the easternmost portions of the Sumy Oblast where the language gradually blends into Russian. Central Ukraine is the birthplace to many famous cultural figures in Russia and Ukraine throughout history, including the writer Nikolai Gogol, a native of the Poltava region where the historic 1709 battle was fought.  The celebrated Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich was also a native of Central Ukraine.

Linguistic Map of Ukraine, utilizing 2009 information from the Kiev National Linguistic University and data from the 2001 Ukrainian Census. Note that Ukrainian is highlighted in yellow. The mixed Russian-Ukrainian language Surzhyk is in orange. Russian is in red. Carpathian Ruthenian (spoken in Zakarpattia) is in the red-violet color. The Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Crimean Tatar, and Trasianka (Belarusian) minorities are also highlighted.

Linguistic Map of Ukraine, utilizing 2009 information from the Kiev National Linguistic University and data from the 2001 Ukrainian Census. Note that Ukrainian is highlighted in yellow. The mixed Russian-Ukrainian language Surzhyk is in orange. Russian is in red. Carpathian Ruthenian (spoken in Zakarpattia) is in the red-violet color. The Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Crimean Tatar, and Trasianka (Belarusian) minorities are also highlighted.

Politically, Central Ukraine functions much like a “swing state” in the US Midwest and thus is a potential “spoiler” for power between the nationalist West and the more Russified Southeast. Here the response to Euromaidan has been mixed. While many in Kiev appear to have given their support for the initial demonstrations, some of the more extreme aspects were rejected. The violent toppling of the Lenin monument in Kiev by the demonstrators received an overwhelmingly negative assessment, with 69% of Kiev residents expressing a negative opinion about this incident and 15% expressing indifference. 67% agreed with the statement that the “removal of Lenin’s monument in the centre of Kiev is a barbarous act,” while 57% concurred that “the actions of those who removed Lenin’s monument in fact repeated the similar practice of Bolsheviks.” It is unclear how the residents of Kiev have reacted to subsequent events.

Southeastern Ukraine forms the most Russified part of the country and is demographically mixed between Russified Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. Much (though not all) of this part of Ukraine corresponds to the old “Novorossiya” or “New Russia” of Tsarist times. It includes Yanukovych’s political base in the working-class industrial heartland of the Donbas, a coalmining region that was once the center of the Soviet-era Stakhanovite movement. Recently, the Donbas has been the scene of a major rebellion against the Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government in Kiev.

Kharkiv, the interwar capital of Soviet Ukraine, is also in the southeast.  The city was founded in the 17th century and, along with nearby Sumy in Central Ukraine, became part of a region known as Sloboda Ukraine whose territory corresponds approximately to the Tsarist-era Kharkov guberniya. It is important to note that, unlike other regions and cities of the southeast, Kharkiv was never part of Novorossiya.

Kharkiv was also a major theatre in the Eastern Front of World War II.  In culture, Ilya Repin, the famed Russian realist responsible for paintings like Ivan Grozny and His Son, October Manifesto, and Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, was a native of the Kharkiv region.

Map of Novorossiya, 1913

Map of Novorossiya, 1913. Note that it includes the territory of the Nikolayev and Kherson oblasti, the southern portions of Transnistria and the Odessa oblast (excluding the Budzhak), the southern part of the Zaporozhia oblast, the southeasternmost area of the Kharkiv oblast, the Western half of the Donbas, and most of the historical region of Zaporozhia (the Dnipropetrovsk and Kirovograd oblasti with the northern portions of the Zaporozhia oblast). This particular map of Novorossiya also includes territories that comprised the Greater Novorossiya region, specifically Bessarabia (Moldova proper with the Budzhak region of the Odessa oblast), Crimea, and the Tsarist-era Don Host Oblast (which included the eastern half of the Donbas and significant portions of Southern Russia). Note that the historical region of Sloboda Ukraine (most of the modern-day Kharkiv oblast plus the northern parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti and the southern portions of the Sumy oblast) is not included within the scope of Novorossiya.

The southeast also includes Zaporozhia, the famous Ukrainian Cossack region renowned for its freedom and independence but feared by Polish nobles as the dzikie pola, or “wild fields.” On the Black Sea coast, one finds the old shipbuilding town of Nikolayev as well as the celebrated cultural center of Odessa with its cosmopolitan mix of Ukrainian, Russian, Jewish, and Mediterranean influences. It is here where the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein filmed The Battleship Potemkin with its iconic Odessa steps sequence, and where writers like Akhmatova, Babel, and the celebrated comedic duo Ilf and Petrov called home. Founded by Catherine the Great and her lover Prince Potemkin, Odessa is a city of humor. “‘Do you come from Odessa?’ is the start to a typical joke, to which the answer is ‘No, I am a respectable person.'”

 Short BBC overview on Odessa.

At the same time, Odessa is also a city that has experienced much tragedy in its history, including anti-Jewish pogroms, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, famines, Stalin’s Terror, World War II, and the Holocaust.  Most recently, the city has witnessed the tragic May 2 massacre in which 48 people died.  Most were anti-Kiev demonstrators and 39 were killed in the Odessa House of Trade Unions in a fire lit by the far-right group Right Sector and far-right football fans known as the “Ultras.”

The people of Southeastern Ukraine primarily regard Orthodoxy as their faith and Russian as their primary language, though significant pockets of Surzhyk speakers can also be found throughout the region, particularly in the South. Most would see the Euromaidan protests as “futile hooliganism” and would likely perceive the Customs Union positively. As one Moscow-based journalist wrote:

Traversing Ukraine from west to east, one can’t help noticing how the country gradually blends into Russia. The architecture transforms from quaint Central European into austere Soviet with Lenin statues in central squares, and people switching languages from Ukrainian to Russian. Large industrial cities at the far east of the country, such as Kharkiv and Donetsk, are hardly distinguishable from their equivalents across the Russian border. The border itself never existed before Ukraine became independent in 1991, not even centuries ago. It was created in 1991, creating a major headache and a good number of outright tragedies for separated families.

Further south is Crimea, a disputed area claimed by Ukraine but controlled by Russia.  Demographically, this region is majority Russian (58%) with significant minorities of Ukrainians (24%) and Crimean Tatars (12%). The Crimean Tatars are a Turkic Muslim people.  They once ruled this region as the Crimean Khanate from which they conducted a brutal slave trade.  The area eventually came under Tsarist Russian and eventually Soviet control.  It was during the Soviet era that the Crimean Tatars were deported from the peninsula en masse by Joseph Stalin in 1944 to Soviet Central Asia. Only since glasnost have they been able to return. Since this time, they have formed their own parliament, the Mejlis, as a means of securing their ethnic rights.  Since acceding to Russia, Moscow has rehabilitated the Tatars and has pledged greater community support, though some Tatar leaders are uncertain about this.

Crimea was a major tourist destination for both the Russian aristocracy in Tsarist times and big-wig commissars in the Soviet era. The resort city of Yalta has historically been an especially popular attraction. The celebrated Russian author, satirist, and playwright Anton Chekhov once wrote of Yalta as being better than Nice on the French Rivera. Yalta is also where Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin met in February 1945 at the Yalta Conference to discuss the future of post-war Europe.

UN Map of Crimea, 2014

UN Map of Crimea, 2014

Additionally, Crimea holds significance in Russian history for being the location of the historic city of Khersones (in modern-day Sevastopol) where Prince Vladimir the Great of Kievan Rus’ converted to Christianity.  Crimea was also the site of many historically significant wars in Russia’s history including not only World War I and World War II, but also the Crimean war fought by Imperial Russia against France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia in the 1850s. After World War II, four cities in Ukraine were designated “hero cities” by Soviet authorities for their exceptional bravery against Nazi Germany. These included Kiev and Odessa and two cities in Crimea – Sevastopol and Kerch. Indeed, in a Western documentary on the formerly top-secret Balaklava submarine base in Crimea, one local tour guide even described Sevastopol as being a “holy place.”

Nikita Khrushchev (German Federal Archives)

Nikita Khrushchev (German Federal Archives)

Crimea was transferred from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev, himself of partial Ukrainian descent and married to an ethnic Ukrainian.  A Ukrainophile, Khrushchev transferred the peninsula to Ukraine as a gift of “brotherly love” on the 300th anniversary of the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav in which the Ukrainian Cossacks agreed to formally join the Russian Empire.  However, Slavic sentimentality was only part of the reason why Khrushchev made the decision.  According to his son, Sergei Khrushchev, there were also serious economic considerations.  As the Sixth Five-Year Plan was being prepared, there were two proposed irrigation canals: South-Ukrainian and North-Crimean.  The first was to run entirely through Ukraine while the second was to start in Ukraine and end in Crimea which was then part of the the Russian Federation.  This necessitated a division of labor between the two republics which would “cause confusion in the building process and slow it down.”  Therefore, for Moscow, it was more efficient administratively for Crimea to be a part of Ukraine.  At the time the decision was made, it was given little consideration by the Russian or Ukrainian public.  As far as they were concerned, it was all part of the same Soviet Union.  Meanwhile, Sevastopol, home to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, continued to be administered directly by Moscow.

According to Sergei Khrushchev, concern over the political status over Crimea first arose at the Belavezha Accords in which Boris Yeltsin together with the leaders of then-Soviet Ukraine and Belarus, Lenoid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich were to agree to formally dissolve the Soviet Union into independent states.  According to Khrushchev, in a lunch prior to the accords, Kravchuk apparently pressed Yeltsin on the future status of Crimea.  However, Yeltsin, chiefly concerned with ousting Gorbachev from power, had no time for such questions.  As a result, when Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea remained within its boundaries.  Subsequent agreements concluded a compromise: Ukraine would formally maintain control of the peninsula while Moscow would retain its Black Sea Fleet.  Sevastopol was granted a special city status.  Many local residents of Crimea preferred to have been part of Russia instead but, for the time being, were content with remaining part of a friendly Ukraine.

This changed after the 2004 Orange Revolution when a pro-Western political leadership led by Viktor Yuschenko came into office.  Among its most controversial decisions, the new government in Kiev announced that it would cancel Russia’s lease on its Black Sea Fleet upon its expiration in 2017.  This was not only poorly received in Moscow but also by the Crimean population as well.  Exacerbating the situation was Kiev’s decision to also pursue an overtly pro-NATO course, creating more tension in the region.  The landing of the US marines in the Crimean city of Feodosiya in 2006 prompted major anti-NATO protests and the Crimean parliament to declare the peninsula a “NATO-free territory.” According to NYU Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen:

An eyewitness account conveyed [the protestors’] mood: “American soldiers… Do you want a new Vietnam here? You will get it, and your mothers will cry!” Meanwhile, “Loudspeakers blasted a throaty rendition of ‘Holy War,’ the song that sent Russian soldiers off to battle during World War II.”

In 2010, the Yuschenko government was succeeded by Viktor Yanukovych, who traditionally favored closer cooperation with Moscow, but had now shifted policy to pursue a more balanced agenda between East and West.  As part of this agenda, Yanukovych agreed to extend Moscow’s lease on the Black Sea Fleet, a move that was welcomed by both Russia and by the locals in Crimea.

However, the agreement fell into doubt after Yanukovych’s ouster from power following the Western-backed Maidan revolution in Ukraine of 2013-14.  The new post-revolutionary leadership in Kiev was a hodge-podge mix of pro-Western liberals like Batkivshchyna and far-right political forces like Svoboda.  Serious concerns soon emerged in both Moscow and Crimea regarding the future political orientation of the new government.  Most of the new government’s members favored membership in NATO while others spoke about canceling Russia’s lease on the Black Sea Fleet.  Far-right politicians, such as Svoboda’s Oleh Tyahnybok, called for Crimea’s political autonomy to be entirely abolished outright.  An effort by the new government to cancel a Yanukovych-era law on regional languages in Ukraine did not help the situation.

Crowds in Crimea celebrate the results of the March 16 referendum in Crimea voting to join Russia (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

Crowds in Crimea celebrate the results of the March 16 referendum in Crimea voting to join Russia (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

A secessionist movement soon emerged in Crimea and quickly received “anonymous” military backing and support from Russia via its Black Sea naval base.  A new breakaway government assumed power and held a plebiscite with the choice of Crimea having either higher autonomy within Ukraine or reunification with Russia.  In the referendum, held on March 16, the overwhelming majority of people in Crimea and Sevastopol voted to join the Russia Federation, a decision accepted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Russia’s move to accept Crimea was condemned by the West but widely supported by the Russian public.  Sergei Khrushchev endorsed the move as did former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev who hailed it as “correcting a Soviet mistake.”  On Victory Day on May 9, Putin made a special visit to Sevastopol where he received a hero’s welcome by the people.  Yet, despite all of this, the West and Kiev continue to insist that Crimea is still part of Ukraine, though some voices (particularly in the German political elite) have been calling for an acceptance of the present situation.

Consequently, Ukraine is a highly diverse country with broad regional divisions that can even be sub-divided into yet smaller divisions. Under one roof live the Zakarpattian highlander, the Galician nationalist, the level-headed Kievan, the Donetsk worker, the theatrical Odessan, and (at least technically) the Sevastopol sailor. Compounding all this is the existence of at least six different churches all claiming to be the “church of Ukraine.” Yet despite Ukraine’s multiple “identity crises,” the country as a whole is the main prize in the geopolitical contest over the former Soviet west.

St. Sophia's Cathedral in Kiev, an architectural monument of the Kievan Rus'.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev, an architectural monument of the Kievan Rus’.

For Russia, Ukraine is especially significant. Moscow would ideally like Ukraine to be in its Customs Union camp for historic, economic, and security reasons. For many Russians, Ukraine is frequently viewed as the place where Russia began, with the Kievan Rus’ in the 9th century. Of course, it is difficult to assert that the Kievan Rus’ was a “Russian” state since there was no such thing as “Ukraine,” “Russia,” or “Belarus” at the time. The land was simply a proto-East Slavic country known as Rus’. Yet, in the Russian imagination, it is Kiev that stands at the heart of Russia’s identity.  To quote the great Russian writer, playwright, and Kiev native Mikhail Bulgakov, it is regarded as the “mother of Russian cities.” Likewise, Ukraine has been coveted for both its rich natural resources and for its geostrategic military position. Indeed, for historic invaders of Russia, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Adolf Hitler, capturing Ukraine was viewed as a necessary first step in order to take Russia. As such, the country is also viewed as a place where Russia fought many heroic battles against foreign invaders. Finally, from a cultural vantage point, Ukraine has been intimately associated with Russian culture.

Significantly, despite one very small opposition demonstration led by Boris Nemtsov in support of the Euromaidan, most Russians either do not support the Euromaidan demonstrations or are ambivalent toward them. Even Aleksei Navalny, one of the most outspoken opponents of the Putin government, was noticeably quiet about the protests. In a Ukrainian television interview, Navalny, who has said that he is ethnically “more Ukrainian than Russian,” expressed the opinion that Russians and Ukrainians (along with Belarusians) effectively comprised the same people. “Although he was insensitive to Ukrainians’ nationalist feelings,” wrote one Moscow-based journalist, “Navalny said what millions of people take for granted, not just in Russia, but in Ukraine itself.”  According to Kiev’s Research & Branding Group, almost 50% of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia. 28% have close relatives living just across the Russian border. 60% indicated that they do not regard Russia as a foreign country. As the historian Stephen F. Cohen wrote, of all the ex-Soviet states, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus “are the most intricately and intimately linked–by geography, history, language, religion, marriage, economics, energy pipelines, and security.”

Consequently, from a historical, cultural, and emotional standpoint, Russia can never give up on Ukraine and will do everything within its power to bring Ukraine into the CU. In the words of Cohen in a December 2013 interview with The John Batchelor Show, “…in Moscow, there is this view among rather non-political Russians that this is Putin’s great test as to whether or not he is a great Russian patriot. To let Ukraine go would be forever the infamy of Putin’s leadership.”

Given the rising tension in the current crisis, what happens next is anyone’s guess…